Zainub Verjee awarded Honorary Doctorate

The Faculty of Fine Arts is thrilled to announce that Zainub Verjee will be awarded the Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts (DFA) at the 2023 Fine Arts convocation ceremony.

You can watch Zainub Verjee’s address to graduating Fine Arts students as part of the UVic convocation livestream starting at 2:30pm Friday, June 16.

Zainub has been a trailblazer renowned for her pursuit of art as a public good. An award-winning public intellectual and cultural diplomat, Zainub has led the way in shaping arts and culture by developing legislation and strengthening public discourse on the centrality of art in society.

Currently the Executive Director of Ontario Association of Art Galleries in Toronto and , she is an accomplished leader in the arts and culture sector and holds over four decades of experience in shaping culture policy at all levels of governments and has contributed to the building of cultural institutions and organizations in Canada and internationally.

An archival image of Verjee from her GG profile video 

A storied career

Born in Kenya, Zainub is a visual and media artist and a fixture in the Canadian contemporary art scene since moving to Canada in the 1970s. She continues to further the cause of arts practitioners, bringing attention to the needs of women artists, artists of colour and Indigenous artists, while shedding a bright light on the issues of labour in the arts, with her tenacious support for the sector during the most fraught times of the pandemic.

Zainub served as executive director of the Western Front, a Vancouver Contemporary Art Centre, co-founded the critically acclaimed In Visible Colours, and contributed to the prison theatre program at Matsqui, now shifted to William Head Penitentiary in Victoria; she was also integral to the formation of the British Columbia Arts Council.

A laureate of the 2020 Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts, Zainub exhibits around the world.

“UVic and Fine Arts recognize Zainub’s outstanding achievements in scholarship, research, teaching and public service, and look forward to celebrating her as a Spring 2023 Honorary Degree Recipient,” says Dr Allana Lindgren, Dean of Fine Arts.

Climate Disaster Project inspires students to help build community of survivors

A Climate Disaster Project participant visits Lytton BC after the town was devastated by wildfires in 2021 

Fires rage, storms blow, floodwaters surge, temperatures climb: as headlines about the latest environmental catastrophes appear with alarming regularity, it’s easy to feel like there’s little the average person can do. But UVic’s Climate Disaster Project is working to make a difference by using eyewitness accounts of climate survivors to create change and build an international community based on hope, trust and empowerment.

Working with partner institutions across Canada and around the world, the Climate Disaster Project (CDP) uses the model of an international teaching newsroom in order to train students in trauma-informed journalism techniques to collect, compile and share survivor stories.

“Speaking with people who have been affected by disasters — and hearing how they were able to move through that and counteract it — showed me just how much resistance is already happening on an individual and community level,” says fourth-year Department of Writing student and CDP participant Tosh Sherkat. “It gives me a lot of hope to realize that we have the resistance within us to come together and help each other to survive.”

CDP participants Tosh Sherkat (left) and Aldyn Chwelos

Having an impact

Funded by an initial $1.875 million donor investment and led by Sean Holman, a veteran journalist and the Department of Writing’s Wayne Crookes Professor of Environmental and Climate Journalism, the project has already had a significant impact since launching in September 2021.

In the past academic year alone, 136 students were enrolled in CDP-related classes in nine different institutions (including UVic, First Nations University, Mount Royal University and Toronto Metropolitan University), learning about the human impacts of climate change, working to share those experiences with the news media, and investigating common problems and solutions identified by climate disaster survivors. New partnerships have recently been secured that will soon see the project expanded to Brazil, Hong Kong, Norway, Nepal, Pakistan, and South Africa and the United States.

To date, Holman and his CDP team of students and recent grads have produced more than 120 stories in collaboration with disaster survivors worldwide, as noted in this overview of the Climate Disaster Project that ran in The Tyee.  

As well as sharing survivor stories through local and national media partnerships with the likes of The Tyee, Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN), the Fraser Valley Current and both Asparagus and Megaphone magazines, CDP students also launched a verbatim theatre production, participated in Bournemouth University’s Global Media Education Summit, and collected stories as part of the Royal BC Museum’s Climate Hope exhibit.

“So often we talk about climate change as this existential thing we have to stop, that we have to prevent . . . but we’ve been saying that for decades and we’re in a worse position than ever,” says Writing student Aldyn Chwelos, a senior research associate and editor with the CDP.  “I feel so much less climate anxiety now because I’m actually working on this. Whether it makes a difference or not remains to be seen, but at least I’m doing something — talking to people, exploring solutions, figuring out how to get through this together — which feels different than just hoping it will all stop.”

Holman & Sherkat taking the survivor story of Suzanne Kilroy/Huculak

Making a change 

Both Chwelos and Sherkat were interviewed on the June 11 edition of What On Earth, CBC Radio’s award-winning national climate-solutions show (skip ahead to the 34:00 mark). 

“I think one of the biggest things I learned was to be bold with my empathy,” Chwelos told What On Earth host Laura Lynch in the interview. “This course is giving students the power to do that.”   

Sherkat told Lynch that the experience has had a profound affect on him. “It’s changed the way I feel about the future,” he says. “It’s renewed a sense of commitment in me to develop a sense of community strength and resilience in a meaningful way.”

A former competitive climber with Canada’s national youth team, Sherkat resigned after an experience protesting at Vancouver Island’s Fairy Creek old-growth logging blockade left him questioning the climate ethics of the international climbing world.

“It was a pretty difficult decision for me,” he admits, listing reasons including international travel requirements and the climbing community’s “rhetoric of being environmental stewards” compared to the actual toll outdoor rock climbing has on the environment. “Representing Canada and high-performance sports in general requires an attitude that’s hard to reconcile with climate-change action movements.”

Sherkat then enrolled in one of Holman’s CDP-related UVic classes in the hopes of making a positive difference, rather than having a negative impact. He says he’s still haunted by the experience of taking the testimony of Pacific Northwest wildfire survivor Suzanne Kilroy/Huculak. (“I couldn’t breathe,” she recalls in Megaphone. “I was coughing up blood . . . . There’s flames 100 feet high on one side of the highway and 50 feet high on the other side. We could feel the heat inside the car.”)

“I don’t think I’ll ever forget that,” he says. “She was such a fantastic storyteller and had so much drama from that, but also had so much love and light and hope for the future. When you bear witness to that kind of story, you also feel responsible for holding the love and hope.”

Chwelos at the RBCM’s Climate Hope exhibit

Witnessing a disaster

For their part, Chwelos was originally studying computer science and working in the tech industry when they realized they wanted to be doing something of more value. “I was working for a company that just wanted to make money,” they say. “I started rethinking how I wanted to fill my life and the work I wanted to do.”

Switching gears to an earlier love of writing, Chwelos enrolled in one of Holman’s CDP classes, where the entire class had to introduce themselves by saying how climate change had affected them.

“I’ve had asthma since I was a kid, and normally the summer months are great . . . but over the past few years the increasing wildfire smoke and pollen levels have meant I’m having more trouble breathing. Making that connection for myself was really interesting, realizing that a large portion of my life has been influenced by this problem,” Chwelos recalls. “Day one, it was all about reframing and realizing that climate change has a huge stamp on everything. And the whole point of the project and Sean’s class was to not minimize those experiences—we may not have lost our homes to wildfires or flooding, but we’re all part of the situation and we can see ourselves in the project.”

Chwelos also accompanied Holman to Lytton, where CDP helped create a time capsule to commemorate the 2021 fire that destroyed 90 percent of the small BC town’s buildings in just 20 minutes and made international headlines.

“Going to Lytton brought up a whole range of emotions. We got to go into the townsite, which was terrifying in so many ways,” they recall. “I was in a car with Sean and it was like driving through the belly of the beast: my heart just sunk and we stopped talking as we took it all in. You could see where the fire had gone through, black carcasses of trees, rusted-out vehicles, steps leading to burned-out houses . . . you could still identify lots of items of humanity in all the rubble. There were signs warning us to close our car windows and not turn on the air circulation because there were potentially toxins of asbestos and lead floating around. You really felt for the community and what they’d lost, to see the entire town basically reduced to rubble. It was scary to think that this was probably the first of many towns that will face this.”

Holman with Writing student & CDP participant Sandra Ibrahim

A future of our own making

While both Chwelos and Sherkat are graduating from UVic in June, the work of the Climate Disaster Project will continue as more students in more institutions around the world get involved with the project and collectively contribute to the ever-increasing “memory vault” of survivor stories.

It’s no exaggeration to say that learning about journalism practices, trauma-informed interview techniques, and climate experiences and solutions has changed the way Chwelos sees the world, as they have now had CDP work published in the likes of the Fraser Valley Current and The Tyee, as well as by the International Network of Street Papers.

As Chwelos said to CBC’s Laura Lynch,It’s shown that when we can come together, there is a lot we can do. We do have the power as we move through these disasters . . . to create new ways of living and create new communities — and build and sustain existing ones — that will allow us to live in more equitable ways and be able to survive climate change together.”

For his part, Sherkat is buoyed by the feeling that he is indeed making a difference with the Climate Disaster Project.

“I think most people just feel overwhelmed when it comes to the climate crisis. On top of policy change, we need a revolution in thinking — everything needs to change,” he concludes. “People my age grew up with the spectre of climate change in our futures: it’s impacted me, and I know it’s impacted the people I’ve worked with, my peers. I feel proud about the work I’ve been doing with the project. That’s enough for me.”

Call for submissions: 3rd annual Student Impact Awards!

Are you a current or graduating Fine Arts student who’s been involved with some community-engaged creative activity in Greater Victoria between January 1/22 & May 31/23? If so, you could qualify for $1,000 via our annual Community Impact Award!

The Fine Arts Student Community Impact Awards will be awarded in Fall 2023 to undergraduate students who have demonstrated an outstanding effort in a community-engaged creative activity in Greater Victoria. Qualifying students are eligible to receive $1,000 for creative projects that went over & above their academic studies.

Since 2021, we have awarded $5,000 to 5 different students! (Read about our 2022 winners here and our 2021 winners here.) “In the arts, we put a lot of ourselves into our work because we love it,” says 2022 award recipient and School of Music student Isolde Roberts-Welby. “This award means that I can spend less time at work and more time pursuing opportunities and projects that are deeply fulfilling.”

Your activity may include — but is not limited to — any exhibit, performance, workshop, publication, curatorial, educational, digital, production and/or administrative role within the regional boundaries of Greater Victoria (Sidney to Sooke).

A completed submission package — including the submission form and all supporting materials — must be received by 5pm Wednesday, May 31, 2023.

Full application details can be found here:

Questions? Contact

Trans queer UVic alumna named Rhodes Scholar

There’s getting a great education, and then there’s what you do with it. Canada’s first trans woman Rhodes scholar has big plans for both.

University of Victoria graduate Julia Levy is one of 11 young Canadians—the only one in BC—chosen for the prestigious scholarship, which provides two fully funded years of post-graduate studies at England’s Oxford University. Levy, a chemistry major, will begin a master’s degree there in fall 2023.

“Being chosen for this scholarship has been so unexpected. Everyone who I was up against in BC was incredibly brilliant—it could easily have been any of us,” says Levy, 24, who got to know the other provincial candidates at a dinner with Rhodes adjudicators in the run-up to selection earlier this month.

“I feel proud as the first trans queer woman in Canada to have been selected. However, I’m at the peak of every other privilege—white, supportive parents, grew up in a good home with financial stability. Right now, you often need all those things going for you to succeed as a trans person in these types of competitions. I hope I’m the outlier of what will one day be a normal thing for trans people regardless of their backgrounds.”

— Julia Levy

The Rhodes scholarship key criteria include academic excellence, demonstrated courage and devotion to duty, and moral force of character.

“Julia has had an amazing journey at UVic and is one of the most talented chemists our department has developed. Her passion for science and her drive to make the world a better place is an inspiration to everyone who is lucky enough to know her. She has a brilliant future and I’m so excited to see all the great things she accomplishes,” says Jeremy Wulff, a UVic chemistry professor who supervised Levy.

Including Levy, 12 UVic students have been named Rhodes scholars.

At the intersection of art and chemistry

Levy’s many achievements at UVic and in her community clearly caught the eye of the Rhodes selection committee. Having graduated with a major in chemistry and a minor in visual arts, Levy actively works to bring those two disciplines together in ways that benefit people.

“Julia is a dedicated artist who is continually pushing the bounds of the discipline,” says Visual Arts professor Paul Walde. “Always questioning and probing the limits of what’s possible, her creativity and drive for excellence makes her an excellent candidate for this prestigious award.”

In her second year at UVic, she invented a virtual reality program to help struggling chemistry students visualize molecules better, and went on to develop an augmented-reality phone app for visualizing complex shapes that is now featured in UVic chemistry workbooks.

Work by Julia Levy

The art of observation

Intrigued by how she could use art in ways that illuminated the experiences of being trans, Levy created a participatory art installation to evoke in viewers the same uneasy sense of being watched that trans people experience as part of their daily lives.

She invited viewers to enter what appeared to be a private space with a camera and video screen, where they saw a view of themselves from the back. Some seized the rare angle to check out how they looked from behind, or to fix their hair—only to discover upon exiting the room that their actions had been witnessed by everyone in the larger room.

Levy also served on UVic’s equity and diversity committee and was active in the ongoing campaign to retrofit university washrooms into non-gendered spaces.

“I’m a mile wide and an inch deep in terms of all the projects I was involved in at UVic,” jokes Levy. “I’m a big believer in never being just one thing. I’m a trans woman, but I’m also a scientist. I’m an artist, but I’m also an activist.”

Levy’s research focus reflects a key UVic impact area of technology and the human experience, and the university’s commitment to advancing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Empower people

“My biggest interest in everything I do is to lift people up. As a trans queer woman, I know what it is to be at the bottom, to be ‘othered.’ I feel that this Rhodes scholarship is such an opportunity to amplify my voice on the issues that really matter to me.”

Levy’s extensive community work includes volunteering with the local Gender Generations Project for trans youth and their families. The project’s twice-yearly gatherings bring youth together with trans adult mentors—so important to young people as reminders that “things do get better,” says Levy.

Levy also worked with UVic’s Vancouver Island Drug-Checking Project, applying her chemistry skills for public good.

The project offers a drop-in service in a downtown Victoria storefront where people can bring street drugs in for chemical analysis. That’s a life-saving initiative in light of poisoned illicit drugs having killed 10,000 British Columbians in the last seven years. “It’s an excellent example of the social use of chemistry,” says Levy.

Levy says she was “very lucky to have grown up surrounded by lesbians” who gave her the confidence to set her own standards for the kind of woman she is. She cites a number of professors as integral to her academic growth—UVic chemists Peter Wan, Wulff and Scott McIndoe, Lindsay Herriot from the School of Child and Youth Care, and cross-disciplinary researcher David Glowacki from the University of Bristol, whom she worked with on virtual reality.

Some of the most influential people in her academic growth were teaching assistants, co-workers and project supervisors, she adds.

She expects to study computational chemistry at Oxford, perhaps with a focus on digital education or health. She’s also drawn to the idea of getting a medical degree that could one day put her on the front lines of helping trans youth access better health care. The Rhodes scholarship covers two years of study with the possibility of two more.

Levy was already part of the UVic community when she transitioned three years ago, which spared her the experience of “the trans foot being the first one you have to put forward” when in an unfamiliar space. That will not be the case at Oxford.

“I’m interested to see how that will go,” says Levy. “But I know from my own life that whenever I see that trans women have achieved something new, it gives me the assurance that things are moving forward. If getting the Rhodes scholarship amplifies my voice, this is going to be such an opportunity to speak truth to power.”

—Jody Paterson

This story originally appeared on the UVic News site on Nov 28, 2022

New photo lab develops student skills

Thanks to cell phones, we live in an era where everyone has a camera in their pocket—but that doesn’t necessarily mean everyone is a photographer.

“I keep having this conversation with students as photography evolves and becomes more ubiquitous,” says Laura Dutton, an assistant teaching professor in photography with our Visual Arts department.

“We’re all used to seeing photos on digital screens, but we really want to place emphasis on the photograph as fine art. The way photography can comment is extremely important in the world of contemporary art.”

Time for an upgrade

With over 150 photography students and nine separate photo-based courses, Visual Arts decided it was past time to upgrade their facilities: the new photography finishing lab is the result of a 15-month, $300,000 renovation funded by UVic’s Capital Projects.

It includes a wide range of technology and donor-funded equipment, including a large-format print, laminator, negative scanner, projector, lighting, computer stations, custom tables and a 50-foot magnetic wall for showing work.

“The room was really lacking functionality before, but now we have a sophisticated and professional space,” says Dutton. She also notes that the new lab and equipment will help students develop new skills in their own photography practice that will transfer to art-related employment opportunities.

“The completed project is providing students with an exceptional learning and making space,” says Visual Arts chair Cedric Bomford. “The excitement to get into the room and use this equipment is exciting. It’s been a real bright spot in a challenging year for students and faculty alike.”

Learning With Others: Karla Point

When it came time to hire a new Indigenous Resurgence Coordinator (IRC) for the Faculty of Fine Arts, we didn’t have to look very far: just down the Ring Road to the Faculty of Law, in fact. 

Karla Point—whose traditional Nuu chah nulth name is Hii nulth tsa kaa—is now the second person to hold this position, following Lindsay Katsitsakatste Delaronde (currently pursuing her PhD with our Theatre department). Part of the Hesquiaht First Nation, she is a life-long learner with strong ties to UVic thanks to both her BA (Humanities, 2003) and LL.B (Law, 2006). Karla was previously the cultural support liaison with UVic Law. 

“When I read the description for this job, I thought, ‘This is me—this is where I belong’,” she says. “The idea of sharing knowledge, learning with others and working with artistic people really appeals to me.”

Engaging her creative license

In addition to her position with the Faculty of Law, Karla has been a reconciliation agreement coordinator with the Sts’ailes Nation, a First Nations program coordinator with Parks Canada, and a treaty negotiator and elected councillor for the Hesquiaht First Nation

“I know I can do something for this job, but this job can also do something for me,” she says. “It’s such a huge contrast to the law—law is so set, but here you’re encouraged to have creative license. There’s so much we can share and collaborate on to ultimately come up with a model that’s a blend of Western and Indigenous knowledge.”

Exploring resurgence initiatives

As the IRC, Karla will support and guide Fine Arts on ways to decolonize existing curriculum and methodologies, incorporate Indigenous perspectives and pedagogies into our curriculum, and develop and implement a variety of resurgence initiatives—including outreach to local communities and student recruitment.

“When I thought about all the different jobs I’ve had and the different people I’ve worked with, I felt like I had what it took to indigenize a curriculum,” she says. “To do a good job, it has to be really collaborative . . . if everyone starts at the beginning together, then we know what the journey is—and it will be successful and well-received.”

Education as a healing journey

Karla will work with university staff, faculty and students while consulting with Elders, Knowledge Keepers and community partners, ensuring her work as the IRC aligns with Indigenous community aspirations for post-secondary education—a topic close to her own heart.

“I’ve had a really hard time with education . . . school and institutionalized education was always a real struggle,” she admits. “But when I went to college, I really appreciated the world of knowledge.”

After attending the Christie Indian Residential School on Meares Island for 15 months in the 1960s, Karla’s parents withdrew her and her brothers; she then attended 25 public schools in 10 different towns, but never graduated from grade 12. “My parents were residential school survivors who were always looking for the geographic cure,” she explains. “They never found it.”

Her own journey to post-secondary began as an adult at Camosun College, eventually culminating in both a diploma and her UVic degrees. “While I was on my educational journey, I was also on my healing journey.”

Welcoming “Auntie Karla”

The mother of three children and grandmother to nine, Karla looks forward to building relationships with the Fine Arts community. “Even though I’m here to develop resurgence initiatives and help Indigenous students, I don’t discriminate: I’ll help any student who comes through the door,” she says. “When I was a cultural support liaison with Law, I was ‘Auntie Karla’ for the Law students—so I’d love to be Auntie Karla for all the Fine Arts students.”

After spending the summer familiarizing herself with the new position and the Faculty in general, Karla will be ready for the return of students in September.

“I’m really excited about this position and feel very welcomed,” she says. “I think I’m going to enjoy it here.”